‘Greetings, prophet. The great work has begun.’
Tony Kushner’s epic two-part drama, written in 1992, deals with Big Themes. Although its main thrust is the AIDS crisis, epitomised by its two protagonists, fictional Prior Walter and non-fictional lawyer Roy Cohn, it deals with everything from mental illness to questions of racial identity, all shot through with flights of metaphysical fantasy. If staged in its entirety, as it currently is at the National Theatre, it runs just shy of eight hours, albeit with copious intervals and a break in between. It is maddening, hilarious, overblown, daring and, in Marianne Elliott’s staging, utterly unmissable. For many, it will be the best thing that they see at the theatre in 2017; for a few, the best thing, full stop.
Kushner’s central conceit is that the temporal and the immortal go hand in hand, and that the literal presence of angels in Reagan’s America is no more unlikely than the betrayals and compromises that we all make, whether it’s to ourselves, our loved ones, or, in the case of Cohn, to the nation. Yet attempting to summarise something as rich and complicated as this is a near-impossible task. It speaks both of its own time, and of ours. And while there is at times a surfeit of riches, especially in the second play, Perestroika, there is also a fierce conviction in both the performances and production that means that one can never become complacent. Even when it seems to lack focus, you’re never more than a few moments from a brilliant one-liner, searing moment of emotional truth or a spectacular coup de théâtre. There are, after all, angels on stage. But there is also a great deal more.
Of the two plays, it is the first, Millennium Approaches, which is the stronger, as well as the shorter. Three and a half hours sounds like a lengthy evening in the theatre, but when it’s as fiercely well acted and conceived as this, it flies past. Perestroika is heavier going at times, especially when the titular angels make their appearances; yet there are many pleasures here as well, not least Ian McNeil’s bold design, alternating between minimalism and naturalism, some fine performances and an excellent Grace Jones joke that will bring the house down.
The two lead actors, Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, are both astonishingly good. Lane is a veteran of the Broadway stage and brings his very best A-game to his performance as the charismatically loathsome Cohn, a man who spent part of his career as lawyer to the young Donald Trump. Spitting out most of the best one-liners, even while riddled with AIDS on his deathbed, it’s something to treasure. Garfield, meanwhile, is a revelation to anyone who’s only seen him as Spider-Man or in Hacksaw Ridge.
Flamboyant and fabulous, yet also vulnerable and all too human, he’s both larger-than-life and a recognisably human centre to the sometimes fantastical goings-on. Yet the entire cast is brilliant, not least Russell Tovey as Joe Pitt, a closeted Republican Mormon lawyer, Denise Gough as his lonely pill-popping wife, James McArdle as Prior’s former boyfriend and the excellent Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence in various pithy roles, of both sexes. I also enjoyed Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, Cohn and Prior’s nurse and welcome voice of sanity; at times, when things seem to be getting too deranged, a pithy one-liner works wonders at re-establishing the narrative.
Kushner’s plays are now deservedly regarded as a modern classic. The speed and enthusiasm with which the run at the National has sold out is entirely unsurprising, as chances to see a cast like this at the top of their game, under Elliott’s intelligent and compassionate direction, are rare. If you can get tickets through any legal means – or if you can watch the NT live screenings – do, and your life will be richer for it. Heavenly, you might say.
Angels in America will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK and internationally via NT Live; Part One on 20th July and Part Two on 27th July 2017. For more information please visit the website.